On the Seawall: "The Island of Last Truth is a fine yarn that saves its best for last."
Date: Dec 4 2012
Born in Buenos Aires in 1963, Flavia Company lives in Barcelona, teaches writing at the Ateneo Barcelonés, and writes in Catalan. Her twelfth novel, The Island of Last Truth, is the only one available in English translation (by Laura McGloughlin). It is narrated by Phoebe Westore, a professor of English in New York, who is both susceptible to the power of stories and committed to ensnaring us in one of her own, as if to even a personal score.
For seven years, Phoebe was married to Dr. Mathew Prendel, a former pediatric surgeon who became her school’s dean. As his death approached, the taciturn Prendel finally told her the story of his mysterious five-year disappearance. In the past, Phoebe had learned “to discipline my impulsive, rash character and to adopt a reserved attitude even to what most stimulated my curiosity.” When she met him, it was rumored that Prendel, a veteran sailor, had been shipwrecked after his 42-foot yacht was attacked by pirates. “When I was put before Prendel,” she says, “I felt I was meeting Conrad or Stevenson. ‘You’ve got too much literature in your head,’ my grandfather would have said. ‘Watch that guy, little one, one can see in your eyes that you like him and there’s something about him that doesn’t suit you.’”
The Island of Last Truth is an homage to both of those writers. From Stevenson, Company extends the tradition of the suspenseful sea tale. From Conrad, she resumes an obsession with solitariness, malevolence, morality and criminality.
Company endows her narrator with terse, unembellished phrasing that aligns with Prendel’s calmly anguished psyche. First, there is the inescapable approach of pirates, the violence, and Prendel’s throwing himself overboard. Then, the hours floating, swimming. Finally, an island. This much I may tell you, since one learns as much in the first few pages. But beyond that, you must venture alone. I’ll only say that Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 film “Cast Away” hardly exhausts the potential for the modern shipwreck tale.
The situation Prendel faces on his isle triggers a spasm of sharp meditations on his life – and the raw impulses he now experiences in himself. At these times, the narration may sound like this excerpt:
“He is conscious that his life had reached a pivotal moment, one of those moments in which things can go one way or another and are in no hurry. When he left New York it had been a while since he had found meaning in anything he did. Was that all there was to life? Nothing more? Just a series of anecdotes related to money, culture, work relations, and personal success? Was it possible that life was only this waiting to see if something happened? Could it not consist of making something happen? What could provoke someone to wish to return to a place that they’d wanted to leave? Nostalgia for comfort? Fear? Habit?”
Conrad drew many of his major characters as complete except for one glaring lack, such as compassion or restraint. Prendel’s excruciating tossings of mind display him as a character of depth and comprehension, and his missing piece appears to be his untold story, now finally revealed. But there is more, and perhaps we sense this from the very beginning. It’s a delicate practice, the storyteller's maintenance of credibility while misting up the air with a subtle fog.
The Island of Last Truth is a fine yarn that saves its best for last – such that not only does Phoebe’s rendition of Prendel’s tale continue to cause wonder after its final words, but it also leaves the reader with a question about Phoebe’s motivation to tell the story in the first place. The “last truth” reflects on Phoebe’s relation to the callous trickery of men.